Nature is a perhaps the ultimate teacher; very often, it’s able to provide us with blueprints we can use to improve our lives. Biomimicry is a term used to describe materials, structures and systems whose design and production have been inspired by nature. Airbus is using biomimicry to attempt to reduce emissions in its commercial airplanes.
- Airbus has rolled out fello’fly, a demonstrator project inspired by biomimicry.
- This project uses the natural flight patterns of birds as a method for improving aircraft efficiency.
- Airbus plans to begin flight tests of fello’fly with two of its A350 aircraft in 2020.
For the birds
Birds don’t fly in flocks by accident. Flying in a V formation makes it easier for them to get from A to B. Each bird that is following down the line times the flap of its wings to catch the uplift eddies of the bird that’s immediately in front. This allows each bird that’s following to remain aloft with less effort. If there are two birds flying in tandem, the one that’s trailing will alter its wingbeat so it can exploit the lift provided by the leader’s wake.
Airbus’ fello’fly demonstrator takes inspiration from this flight pattern and aims to use it to reduce emissions on long-distance trips. As an aircraft soars through the sky, much of the energy it produces dissipates in its wake. If a second plane positions itself in the updraft of the leading aircraft, this will allow the trailing plane to gain lift. Thanks to this added lift, the second aircraft will be able to reduce its engine thrust. According to Airbus, this reduction in engine thrust could reduce the plane’s fuel consumption by as much as five to 10 percent per trip.
Staying in formation
One big hurdle that needs to be cleared here concerns the positioning of the plane that’s following in tandem. The trailing plane needs to be close enough to benefit from the leader’s wake, but if it gets too close, it could present a safety hazard. Airbus is working on pilot assistance functions to provide support in this area. This technology would function much like adaptive cruise control does in a car: It would help the plane maintain a consistent distance behind the aircraft that it’s following. It would also allow the trailing plane to hold a steady altitude.
There are also operational challenges that need to be addressed. On this front, Airbus is working closely with airlines and air traffic controllers to figure out how best to integrate fello’fly into everyday use. The company is using these partnerships to identify workable solutions for the challenges that come with the planning and execution of fello’fly flights.
Airbus plans to begin flight tests next year. The company hopes to begin using fello’fly on its flight routes by the middle of the next decade.
WHY THIS MATTERS
According to information publishing by the International Council on Clean Transportation, carbon emissions from commercial aviation totaled 918 metric tonnes in 2018. Historically, aviation has been viewed as a sector that’s difficult to decarbonize. Innovations like fello’fly could help simplify the process.